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TSE  July 2005

TSE July 2005

Subject:

Re: On Character, and staying on character (where Nancy left off)

From:

Jennifer Formichelli <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

T. S. Eliot Discussion forum.

Date:

Sun, 24 Jul 2005 11:19:50 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (116 lines)

Dear Listers,

The discussion has strayed, but let me pick up a bit where Nancy left 
off, on the discussion of character. I do think, by the way, that 
Eliot's use in his Notes of the word 'personages' in TWL is evidence of 
his making a crucial distinction between character and something else 
that is not quite character.

Now, let me address Nancy (to whom I apologise for losing the thread 
and misattributing comments in an earlier post).  NG:


> I think Sweeney is a very vividly defined personality even though he
> emerges from several poems.

JF: A couple of things here. You are using 'personality' 
interchangeably with 'character'. So which is it? Is Sweeney a 
character or a personality?

>   "Character" need not always involve
> development.  Snopeses, for example, are very definite characters whose
> character is precisely to be Snopeses.  They don't change much, with
> only a couple of exceptions, like Sarty.

But, precisely? This isn't precise.  Why are you bracing character in 
inverted commas? There is a lot of hedging about this. First, 
personality. Now, "character". Of development, I have to say two 
things. A character, in the sense in which I understand it--as an 
imaginary or fictional person or creature with thoughts, feelings, tone 
of voice, marked gesture, and, perhaps most of all, context--most 
certainly does need development, just as human beings do. That's why 
the word used adjectivally implies a certain maturity (like the 
character of wine), a background. That is also why characters have 
interest for us. We follow their development, and are, quite plainly, 
often sad to lose their company when the story ends and we have all we 
will ever have of them (you'll note, for example, that many books have 
tried to bring back Sherlock Holmes, but he died with Doyle's last 
story).

The characters you are talking about are not definite characters at 
all; they are caricatures, rather, and therefore their dimensions are 
intentionally pressed flat. Now, these do require development also, but 
it's a different sort of development. Eliot was interested in , and 
sometimes confused about, the distinction. See his 1919 essay on 
'Christopher Marlowe', and the 1920 essay on 'Ben Jonson'.


>  (And we've all learned the
> new-critical distinction of "round" and "flat" character, so 
> development
> has been critically bracketed there.)
Well, I haven't learned it. And I doubt that the artist's development 
can be, as you put it, critically bracketed, either.

> I think in the sense of being a
> fairly complex figure with more than emblematic presence, the young man
> carbuncular may also be called a "character."  There are many very
> dramatic scenes in the early poems--especially, of course, "Sweeney
> Agonistes," but that may also be seen as an early drama.

What do you mean by a fairly complex figure? Now we have a new word: 
figure? How complex? We have no particular context for him (you'll note 
that Eliot expunged a good deal of nastiness from the drafts), and what 
we do have we have from a very grudging observer, whose view taints the 
scene he describes; and the man. Whose side, then, are we on?  On 
another point, Eliot crucially does not call Sweeney Agonistes a drama 
(nor is it, unless a miserably failed one). He calls it 'fragments of 
an Aristophanic melodrama'.

> But he has
> strong, if fragmentary, qualities in "Sweeney Erect."   It is a subject
> of debate, no doubt, if Prufrock is really a character, but the poem 
> CAN
> be read as a dramatic monologue of a very detailed persona.

How can Prufrock be a character? Once again, we have no context for 
him. We know not his age or youth, his loves or hates; we know just so 
little that we might imagine we know more; but we'd better realise that 
more is just what we don't know. And, for me it ruins the poem to think 
of Prufrock as a character. It is precisely that he is not a character, 
that he casts himself in an undramatic light, that makes the poem rich 
to me. The same can be said for dramatic monologue. Not quite. Eliot 
gets the right effect by hovering on the edge.

Of course, on another matter, this is quite a confused comment. We now 
have a claim for character, and then a dramatic monologue by a 
'persona'. Huh? This is most slippery.
>
> I think what I am getting at is that there is not so sharp a division 
> as
> seems to have been implied between a "character" in, say, a play, and
> the figures who populate the poems.
> Nancy
>

Well, yes, there is . Let's say, in a play. Let's say, for ease of use, 
Iago. The distinction is that we have a context for Iago. We know what 
Iago thinks, how Iago lives, and even more critically, what others 
think about Iago.

In none of Eliot's poems do we know any of this, although we might, by 
the temper of the age and the fine craft of the page, be tempted to 
think that we know it (and then to ask ourselves what knowing it might 
mean).

Part of my point here, though, is that we cannot have a serious 
discussion of character on such slippery terms. This post confuses 
character, "character", personality, persona, and figure; and in doing 
so, it wrongly understands caricature as character and vice-versa, and 
fails to distinguish between drama, poetic drama, dramatic monologue, 
poetic verse, verse drama, and dramatic poems properly. I argue the 
case because these distinctions were crucial to Eliot, in both his 
poems and his criticism.


Yours, Jennifer

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